The Macedonian Front, also known as the Salonika Front, began in 1915 when the Entente Powers attempted to aid Serbia, which was under attack from the Central Powers. The expedition arrived too late to be of any aid to the Serbs and eventually the front stabilized along a line from the Adriatic Coast to the Strumma river. The Bulgarians, aided by smaller contingents of other Central Powers forces, faced a multi-national force of the Entente countries. Eventually the Entente launched a decisive offensive which defeated the Bulgarians and liberated Serbia.
By October 1915 it had become apparent to the Entente that Serbia, which was being attacked by Austro-Hungary, Germany and Bulgaria, needed help. The question was, could such a demonstration be arranged? With the Austrian Navy a threat in the Adriatic and with the absence of harbors capable of supporting any serious expeditionary force on the Albanian coast, this left only the Greek port of Salonika as a feasible base for the launch of such a campaign. The Entente forces mobilized, but by the time they reached Salonika it was too late for the Serbians.
Greece was torn from within and at the same time fearful of being drawn actively into the war. Although technically victorious in the Balkan Wars, the Greeks had still suffered a painful experience which they would rather not repeat quite so soon. So, at the outbreak of the Great War, Greece remained neutral, although this did not prevent bitter internal political battles over which side it should favor.
For the Entente, to generate a suitable Salonika Expeditionary Force (SEF) to intervene in the Balkans was no easy matter. It was only the acceptance of the total failure of the Gallipoli operations that allowed the French to contribute their 156th Division. Meanwhile the British sent the 10th Division commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Bryan Mahon. In overall command was the French General Maurice Sarrail.
The first Entente troops began to disembark at the port of Salonika. Bulgaria still had not joined the war, but there was a more immediate complication in a violent disagreement between King Constantine and Venizelos over what in effect was a flagrant breach of Greek neutrality. The Greek prime minister was forced to resign and a prolonged period of political instability ensued. In the end the Greeks offered no resistance to the Entente presence at Salonika. Yet it was now too late for the Serbians.
Mahon had been given cautious orders from London, requiring him to stay close to Salonika pending the final decision of the Greek government as to whether to abandon neutrality. But Sarrail was determined to push inland anyway. He crossed the Serbian border and advanced into the Vardar Valley with the intention of supporting the Serb forces. The most he could hope to achieve was to hold open a line of retreat for the Serbs.
The Serbs congregated in the small ports up and down the Albanian coast, and were eventually rescued by the Royal Navy. Some 250,000 Serbian troops were evacuated to the Greek island of Corfu. It was a massive undertaking and must have appeared of little real military value as the emaciated Serbian scarecrows boarded the ships.
As the British and French fell back, they formed a line just inside the Greek border to try and hold back the Bulgarians. The British wanted to evacuate, but the French would not consider it. In the end the French had their way and once again the British would ignore their better instincts in the cause of alliance warfare. The Salonika Front became a permanent fixture for the rest of the war. Despite all their efforts, the Entente still only had enough forces to defend themselves, and not enough to attack with much hope of success. As the Bulgarians were forbidden to press into Greece by the Germans, who were fearful of triggering direct Greek involvement in the war, there they would stay in static oblivion.
There were severe problems in controlling the endemic malaria which plagued the area. There was a plethora of pools, ponds and lakes, all of which provided the perfect habitat for mosquitoes, and any stagnant water soon became infested with their larvae. This was a concern that would endure throughout the campaign. Anti-malaria measures were vital, necessitating constant vigilance in eradicating unnecessary standing water and regularly issuing quinine to every man. Despite all these preventative measures the British alone would suffer over 162,000 cases of malaria during the campaign.
The success of the Russian offensive directed against Austria-Hungary in June 1916 had triggered the ambitions of Romania to share in any spoils of war. This was very welcome to the Entente, for the Romanian Army was some 400,000 strong and so obviously a valuable addition to the Entente forces. But one condition of Romanian participation was a Salonikan offensive to pin down the Bulgarian Army. Sarrail planned an attack mainly by Serbian and French troops on the left and center, which entailed the British taking over the front line covering the Serbian border between the Vardar River and Lake Doiran.
Despite the complication of a Bulgarian offensive which had to be countered in August, the French and Serbian assault began in mid-September. Although some gains were made – including a tiny symbolic corner of Serbia at Monastir – the onset of the Balkan winter brought the offensive to an inconclusive end in December. Meanwhile the illusion of a pan-Balkan alliance to sweep away Austria-Hungary was shattered by the humiliating defeat of the Romanian forces by a combined German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian army. And so once again the Entente Salonika forces were left busy doing nothing.
In early 1917, Sarrail was given the role of ‘fixing’ as many Central Powers resources as possible while Robert Nivelle launched his much-vaunted offensive on the Western Front. But Sarrail, perhaps recognizing that his forces were achieving little of substance, resolved to launch his own major offensive that April. In this ambitious attack, the British Salonika Force, now commanded by Lieutenant General Sir George Milne, would for the first time play a major role, by attacking Bulgarian positions in the hill country west of Lake Doiran, thereby threatening the tactically significant Kosturino Pass.
After a sadly inadequate three-day barrage, the British made a night attack with Zero Hour. When the attack came it was certainly no surprise to the Bulgarian artillery, who laid down an effective barrage on the British front lines before shrapnel fizzed across the torn ground of No Man’s Land. The attack was a failure, with over 3,100 casualties in sharp contrast to just 835 lost by the successful defenders. A repeat attack ordered for a fortnight later, in a further attempt to pin the Bulgarians while the French and Serbs attacked to the west, met with no more success. The Serbian and French forces did no better, with any insignificant gains soon abandoned in the face of trenchant Bulgarian counterattacks.
The failure of these offensives provoked a final crisis with the resolutely neutral Greek government. In June 1917 the Allies forced the abdication of Constantine and replaced him with his son, Alexander, who was far more malleable to their point of view. Almost immediately Venizelos, who had been running a pro-Entente government in exile on Crete, was reinstated as Prime Minister. He promptly declared war on the Central Powers. Most of the Balkans were now embroiled in the Great War. But still nothing much seemed to change. Certainly, the Greek Army seemed to lack any enthusiasm for the fray.
As the Salonika campaign staggered. on, Sarrail himself was replaced after a change in government in France brought in the distinctly unsympathetic Georges Clemenceau as premier in November 1917. Sarrail’s replacement was first General Marie-Louis Guillaumat and then, on his recall to France in June 1918, the highly regarded General Louis Franchet d’Espèrey.
General d’Espèrey managed to gain permission to launch an offensive as long as he did not require extra troops. The main attack was to be made by the Serbs and French through mountainous terrain to the west of the Vardar Valley. d’Espèrey had managed to assemble covertly superior forces that outnumbered the Bulgarians by some three to one. This time the Entente were successful and, after hard fighting, managed to take the mountain peaks. In front of them lay the valleys which would channel behind the Bulgarian line.
The Bulgarian forces occupying Skopje surrendered and a day later Bulgaria formally surrendered. It was a bitter-sweet moment for the British Salonika Force. It had been on the winning team; but the excitement of victory had belonged to its allies. It had battled for the best part of three years but then had to be content with nothing more than a secondary role in the ultimate dénouement.